Finding strength deep in my heart - LancasterOnline: Lifestyle

Finding strength deep in my heart

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Posted: Sunday, April 1, 2012 12:08 am | Updated: 7:23 pm, Thu Sep 12, 2013.

So how did an emergency room visit for persistent, painful acid reflux end with me having aortic valve replacement surgery a month later?

As I rode with my father to Lancaster General Hospital the night of Feb. 7, I knew something wasn't right.

But I never suspected it was my heart.

No one in my immediate family has heart problems, and the first time I ever saw a cardiologist was that evening. At the time, he thought my chest discomfort could've been heart-related. That turned out not to be the case (it really was acid reflux, caused by a hiatal hernia), but follow-up tests revealed a faulty aortic valve.

So while the news shocked me - I wasn't aware of any symptoms up to that point - I realized just how lucky I was that my congestive heart failure had been discovered.

Without that trip to the emergency room, I would've been oblivious to what was going on - perhaps until it was too late.

God truly does work in mysterious ways.

At first, however, surgery wasn't seen as necessary, and I was discharged after fewer than four days in the hospital.

But before long I was back in, thanks to a bad reaction from an anti-anxiety drug that sent me to the emergency room once again.

I scarcely remember this episode, except that I recall a bunch of EMS guys standing around my bedroom as I sat on the edge of my bed, trying to figure out why they were there.

My caregiver has since told me that I was barely able to speak coherently, but I managed to tell the ambulance crew that it was OK to take me to the hospital.

(By the way, that's the first time I ever had a serious reaction to a drug, and I've taken plenty of prescriptions over the years for rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. That was about as scary as it gets.)

On my second go-round at LGH, it was determined I needed to be operated on sooner rather than later, so the question became who would do the surgery.

Because of my chronic arthritis and small stature, it was decided that I should transfer to Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

I knew that I was something of a risky case, but none of the physicians at Hershey - especially my surgeon, Dr. Michael Lazar - ever made me feel that way.

He also knows how to explain open-heart surgery so you're not frightened out of your wits, which is a very special skill indeed.

Dr. Lazar told me my heart was enlarged because the leaky valve was overworked, but that the operation should reduce it to normal size once again.

His reassurance was a huge relief, because I had been worried that some of the damage was irreparable. After all, there was a possibility I'd lived with this serious cardiac condition for years, and who knows what deterioration had already taken place?

Fortunately, the problem was confined to my aortic valve, and surgery wouldn't require any cutting into the heart muscle.

I also chose to have a tissue valve replacement - at the recommendation of Dr. Lazar - instead of a mechanical one that would require me to take Coumadin the rest of my life.

Tissue valves don't last as long, but their life expectancy is a good 15-20 years. (After my operation, I learned Dr. Lazar used a state-of-the-art Trifecta valve that was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration.)

To make sure nothing would interfere with the healing process - which meant stopping my arthritis drug Enbrel - the surgery wasn't scheduled right away. Though it's been a godsend for me, Enbrel does suppress the immune system, so doctors wanted me to avoid it for a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, I was able to go home, which was probably the best thing that could've happened.

I went into my March 8 operation mentally and physically stronger than I'd been in weeks - and possibly months.

On some level I was scared, of course, but I tried really hard to be as calm as possible, telling myself over and over how much I needed the surgery.

Following the operation, I woke up in the cardiac intensive care unit more concerned about the bothersome breathing tube in my mouth than the pain in my chest.

In fact, my level of discomfort was so minor I only ended up taking a few pain pills in the next 32 hours - and none thereafter. I think it hurt more when the drainage line (one of about half a dozen tubes and IVs left over from the surgery) was pulled out of my chest.

I have no doubt that prayers helped in my recovery, which allowed me to be discharged three days following the operation and return to work five days after coming home.

My dad tells people it's almost as if I never had the procedure. And in a way it does seem like it happened to someone else, especially as the days go by.

But the scar down my sternum will always be there to remind me, and I never want to forget what that ultimately means: a second chance at life.

Paula Wolf is a staff writer for the Sunday News. Email her at pwolf@lnpnews.com. She also blogs about sports at lancasteronline.com/blogs/w....

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